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What did Marx not foresee?
July 18, 2014 5:24 PM   Subscribe

What has happened in recent history that has upended Marxist philosophy?

Or confirmed it
posted by Triumphant Muzak to Work & Money (20 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Marx thought communist revolution would come, inevitably, to advanced industrial economies like Germany, Britain and America. Instead, those were generally the countries that most thoroughly rejected communism. Marxism was embraced in nations that had not yet had a "bourgeois revolution", like Russia and China, which Marx did not anticipate or really think possible. Marx believed a capitalist stage was necessary to bring about communism.
posted by spaltavian at 6:05 PM on July 18 [5 favorites]


Attempts to abolish private property have been disastrous for workers.

Marx also didn't predict some additions to his teleology like Pol Pot's Year Zero genocide to remove all non-revolutionary culture.
posted by michaelh at 6:17 PM on July 18 [1 favorite]


I haven't gone too deep into marxist theory, but my understanding is that a marxist framework would posit that we're still in late capitalism, pre a true communist revolution.
posted by kylej at 6:22 PM on July 18


I am in a lecture which just posed this question, oddly enough. Apparently: technology and it's role in globalisation, and related to this, the diminishing significance of the nation-state as an organising principle for global politics.
posted by jojobobo at 7:09 PM on July 18 [2 favorites]


Marx Was Right: Five Surprising Ways Karl Marx Predicted 2014

A Return to a World Marx Would Have Known

The Revenge of Karl Marx

Marx Was Right: Capitalism May Be Destroying Itself
posted by scody at 7:19 PM on July 18 [11 favorites]


Marx thought communist revolution would come, inevitably, to advanced industrial economies like Germany, Britain and America. Instead, those were generally the countries that most thoroughly rejected communism.

It's a lot more complex in each case, actually, when you look at the history of workers' movements from the late 19th century into the 20th century. But to take the example of Germany: the German working-class before World War I was generally regarded as the most organized and radical in the world, and Marx, like virtually everyone else, assumed the revolution would break out there first. And indeed, revolution did break out in Germany after the end of the war, but it was put down in 1919, which led to the establishment of the Weimar Republic.

Still, significant numbers of German workers remained radicalized, especially during the instability of the first period of the republic (up through late 1923). When the second period of instability came in late 1929 (due to the world economic crisis), there was another period of radicalization, with clashes between communists and Nazis. After the Nazis assumed power, it was absolutely no accident that among the first groups they targeted were communists, socialists, and trade unionists. So it's not really accurate to say that Germany "thoroughly rejected" communism.
posted by scody at 7:30 PM on July 18 [6 favorites]


Nothing, because Marxism is unfalsifiable.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:09 PM on July 18 [4 favorites]


Moderately Marxist Scifi writer Iain M Banks (peace upon him) presents a workers paradise in his Culture books, but to do so he also had to posit perfectly immortal, omniscient and benevolent God-Machines that would take care of everyone forever.

Take from that what you will.
posted by Sebmojo at 10:26 PM on July 18


Nothing, because Marxism is unfalsifiable.

Karl Popper had some interesting criticisms of Hegel and Marx. This, however, is a fairly uninteresting positivist slogan. After Kuhn, most working scientists and virtually all philosophers of science can articulate a clearer view of the metholdogical distinctiveness of science than Popperian falsifiability.

Marx thought communist revolution would come, inevitably, to advanced industrial economies like Germany, Britain and America... Marx believed a capitalist stage was necessary to bring about communism.

This is the tendentious two-stage theory, which in various ways divided Menshevik from Bolshevik, Left Communist from Leninist, Trotskyist from Stalinist, etc. Here are some of the most direct remarks Marx made on the subject vis-a-vis Russia.

But the overall point is absolutely correct: Marx's view was that Capitalist forces of production prefigured socialist ones, and that the industrial proletariat in the most developed nations were the leading agents of revolutionary change in his time.

I haven't gone too deep into marxist theory, but my understanding is that a marxist framework would posit that we're still in late capitalism, pre a true communist revolution.

Marx did not have a rigid periodization like this. Yes, there were revolutionary upheavals, but afterward society would be in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. But yes, I and most other Marx-influenced thinkers see us as remaining solidly in a capitalist epoch because of the persistent of wage labor, private ownership of the means of production, and states which maintain those social relations.
posted by wobdev at 11:04 PM on July 18 [3 favorites]


More generally: it's important to distinguish between particular views Marx held, and "Marxism". Marxism is incredibly varied, but is thought by all but the most doctrinaire to provide a methodology as much as a set of positive theses, to say nothing of a particular political program (!). It's also important to recognize the degree to which all of the social sciences owe a certain debt to Marxism.

If the thought is right that the trouble lies not in original error but uncorrected obsolescence, then the job is not to see where ‘Marx was wrong’ so much as to make a fresh application of his theory to the world around us as it is, not as it once was. To borrow a comparison from the field of physics, we need socialist Faradays and Maxwells or if we are lucky, Einsteins and Plancks, not people who confine themselves to knocking Isaac Newton. - Braverman
posted by wobdev at 11:18 PM on July 18 [5 favorites]


Sorry, I won't be citing anything because this is all speculation from the back of my ass...

My (partial) understanding of Marx is that the principle dialectic conflict is between those who own the means of production and those who operate the means of production.

Unfortunately (for Marx), that dialectic is no longer relevant in most modern western societies. Replace "means of production" with "production of information and opinion" and we're much closer to the mark.

The current power elite controls mass media and the content of it. Especially in the industrial west, where most job growth is in service sectors (medicine, hospitality, financial services, law, technology, etc) the distinction between owners and operators begins to break down. A twelve year old kid from Bangladesh can, with access to an internet caffe, publish opinions or other content that becomes influential.

A workmate of mine from West Africa never *saw* a computer until he was 17 (less than half his lifetime ago). Now he's a talented, effective software developer for a product used by millions of people around the world.

So the the short version of the above is that the industrial world that Marx was operating in is increasingly an outdated anachronism.

The other area where I think Marx falls apart is with the necessity for violet revolution. The progression (if my memory is correct) is class consciousness developed among the working population, which subsequently manifests in the violent overthrow of the bourgeois owners of the means of production.

Where such revolutions have happened (Russia 1919, China 1950, Cambodia 1975, etc), the result has not been dictatorship of the proletariat, but dictatorship of an elite clique that holds onto power at all costs.

Granted, I'm speaking as an avid reader of the Economist, and as a capitalist and liberal (in the Economist's sense of the term), but I think one of the greatest counter-examples to Marx's vision of violent overthrow and dictatorship of the proletariat is the huge rise in both standard of living and liberal democracy in nations that reject his principles.

Apologies again for lack or sources here. Compared to the mid 19th Century, individuals in most of Western Europe and North America enjoy higher standards of living, better education, greater electoral participation, and much less crime. Of course it's not perfect. But by and large the rule of the law is alive and well, and people live longer, happier lives with more recreation and less toil than 150 years ago.

Liberal economic policy encourages experimentation, accepts failure as a basis for moving on to future endeavors, and creates new jobs where they previously didn't exist. Not that this is impossible under a Marxist state, but the history I think I'm familiar with doesn't suggest it occurs as often.

Of course it's not perfect. Of course, at least in a America, we seem to be on a revolting slide back towards unbridled oligarchy. But the folks beating down the door to pick lettuce and strawberries in Monterey and Salinas know what they're doing. They only people beating down the doors of Vietnam are large Chinese multinationals.
posted by colin_l at 2:12 AM on July 19


A major critique of Marx these days is his failure to foresee ecological calamity overtaking history.
posted by spitbull at 2:20 AM on July 19 [1 favorite]


To my mind, the most dramatic failure is Marx's prediction that, in the nations that embraced Communism, the state would eventually "wither away" as unnecessary.
posted by yclipse at 4:55 AM on July 19


> To my mind, the most dramatic failure is Marx's prediction that, in the nations that embraced Communism, the state would eventually "wither away" as unnecessary.

Why? He wasn't talking about "nations that embraced Communism" in the sense of using Communism as a slogan and pseudo-ideology (I presume you're thinking of countries like the USSR and China), he was talking about the end result of actual communism (in his terms). Since no such thing has ever existed (and I doubt can exist, but that's speculation), his theory has not been falsified in that respect.

In general, I think it's more useful to think of Marxism as a certain way of looking at the world (through the lens of labor and capital) rather than as a checklist of "predictions" to be "falsified" or "confirmed."
posted by languagehat at 7:32 AM on July 19 [4 favorites]


My (admittedly limited) understanding is that a main tenet of Marx's philosophy has been confirmed: namely, that capitalists would, over time, invest more in technology and less in labor. Marx said that this would eventually undermine the whole basis of capitalism. Maybe the timeline is just a bit longer than Marx imagined.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:33 AM on July 19 [2 favorites]


A major critique of Marx these days is his failure to foresee ecological calamity overtaking history.

Sure, but all of Marx's contemporary opponents failed in this as well. Marx had a much more nuanced view than, say, Malthus.
posted by wobdev at 11:11 AM on July 19 [1 favorite]


Especially in the industrial west, where most job growth is in service sectors (medicine, hospitality, financial services, law, technology, etc) the distinction between owners and operators begins to break down. A twelve year old kid from Bangladesh can, with access to an internet caffe, publish opinions or other content that becomes influential.

Sigh. Services, in the modern sense, are treated in Marx's analysis, so the shift to the "service sector", while politically interesting, is not foreign to Marx's analytical framework.

Your claim that the distinction between owners and operators breaks down due to technological change is simply technological determinism, as preached by Rifken and Bell. If kids from Bangladesh are so influential, why are their parents dying in factory collapses?

A workmate of mine from West Africa never *saw* a computer until he was 17 (less than half his lifetime ago). Now he's a talented, effective software developer for a product used by millions of people around the world.

How many of his peers in West Africa can say the same? I'm a software developer and a proletarian - I sell my labor power for wages. Class is not about income level or skill, but about relationship to the means of production.

So the the short version of the above is that the industrial world that Marx was operating in is increasingly an outdated anachronism.

Marx was, more than any of his contemporaries, alive to the radical changes capitalist social relations: "The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes."

In the Grundrisse's Fragment on Machines he predicts that "science" and social knowledge will become increasingly important factors of production.

Apologies again for lack or sources here. Compared to the mid 19th Century, individuals in most of Western Europe and North America enjoy higher standards of living, better education, greater electoral participation, and much less crime. Of course it's not perfect. But by and large the rule of the law is alive and well, and people live longer, happier lives with more recreation and less toil than 150 years ago.

What aspect of that is incompatible with Marx? In Capital he makes clear that the wage level is effected by myriad social forces, the "level of civilization" (the product historic class struggle). He clearly though these could improve over time, hence his lengthy discussion of the Factory Acts, which did just that (after long struggle).

If the owner of labour-power works today, tomorrow he must again be able to repeat the same process in the same conditions as regards health and strength. His means of subsistence must therefore be sufficient to maintain him in his normal state as a working individual. His natural needs, such as food, clothing, fuel and housing vary according to the climatic and other physical peculiarities of his country. On the other hand, the number and extent of his so-called necessary requirements, as also the manner in which they are satisfied, are themselves products of history, and depend therefore to a great extent on the level of civilization attained by a country; in particular they depend on the conditions in which, and consequently on the habits and expectations with which, the class of free workers has been formed. In contrast, therefore, with the case of other commodities, the determination of the value of labour-power contains a historical and moral element.
posted by wobdev at 11:31 AM on July 19 [3 favorites]


But the folks beating down the door to pick lettuce and strawberries in Monterey and Salinas know what they're doing.

Responding to global capital's underdevelopment of their native countries and acquiescing to the racist denial of the rights of citizenship in those areas where they are able to find work?
posted by wobdev at 11:37 AM on July 19 [2 favorites]


I have long since regretted dropping the pursuit of Marxist theory, because when I started it was really on its back foot and seemingly disconnected to the modern world and concerns of e.g. a global economy. I now realize how wrong that was; in fact it explains much of the 2008 financial crisis in ways that few other approaches really comprehensively can.

Crises of Capitalism, David Harvey, LSE 2010 (RSA Animate excerpts)

To the contrary, then, I believe that what has happened most recently has confirmed Marx's brilliance and foresight in ways I never thought possible -- and I say this as someone who is generally OK with the mixed economy we have in the U.S. at this time and desires more socially democratic reforms but nothing radical. Capitalism is wrought with contradictions, and even though the media and culture tend to portray crises as these great anomalous who-could-have-foreseen events, it's clearer to me than ever that crises are a tool of capitalism and seen by many who are fully committed to capitalism as a principle (e.g. Randians, Santelli, etc.) as the right and proper way to punish the moral weakness of individuals having acted the way business and investors act all the time.

Sorry if this isn't as jargon-laden a response, but this is basically how I feel today.
posted by dhartung at 12:45 PM on July 19 [6 favorites]


spitbull: "A major critique of Marx these days is his failure to foresee ecological calamity overtaking history."

Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. [245] Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the labourer. - Capital, Chapter 15
posted by wobdev at 8:00 AM on July 31 [2 favorites]


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